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Interview with: Peter Roussel
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: November 25, 2009
DG: Today is November 25, 2009. We are in the basement of City Hall in the Mayor’s Dining Room interviewing Mr. Peter Roussel for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Sir?
PR: I am fine, David. How are you?
DG: I am doing great, thanks. Let’s begin where we always begin – at the beginning. Tell us about your earliest days.
PR: My earliest days. Well, the ones that I can remember, I was born October 23, 1941, in Houston, Texas, delivered at St. Joseph’s Hospital, downtown Houston where many babies in that day were delivered – at St. Joseph’s Hospital. My mother was 43 when I was born so pretty late in life for somebody to be having a baby. I was one of 3 children, the youngest of 3 children. I had a brother who was 18 years older than I was, who was lost in World War II, and I have a sister who is 9 years older than I am. So it was kind of unusual to have 3 children that were all 9 years apart but I am glad it happened so I could be here talking to you today.
DG: Your father was somebody a lot of people would have heard from. Can you tell us about his life?
PR: Well, I can probably combine my father’s and my mother’s because they both had journalism backgrounds. I come from a journalism family; to be more specific, a newspaper family. My mother first, she was born in 1898 and grew up, up the road here from Houston in a little town called Courtney. It is up by Navasota. She came here to Houston once she graduated from college, came here in the nineteen teens to be a schoolteacher. She was teaching school here . . . now we are getting into the World War I period and a lot of the men had gone off, young men, had gone off to serve in World War I. They posted a notice at her school one day, it said that the Houston Post needed people who had a good grammatical background and thought English teachers certainly would fit into that category so she went down there and applied at the Houston Post for a job. She had to kind of really make her case there and finally they said, “Well, we’ll give you a try.” So they did. They put her on what was then called the universal copy desk which is right in the middle of the city room of a daily newspaper which, in those days, was a pretty busy place. So she began her career there. And then, you fast forward later . . . you asked me about my father. He had grown up here in Houston, born here, grew up here but he was born in 1897. He started out early in his life as a copy boy at the Post as a young boy. Later then, he went on and was earning a living doing other things as you could do in those days without a formal education, as a writer. He wrote fiction, short stories, for Pulp magazines, most of which were based in New York and he would mail them up there. They would pay him for these short stories. It finally dawned on him thought that probably was not going to be a career that had a long-term life to it so he ended up at the Post. He went and applied at the Post and that is where, for the most part, he spent the rest of his professional career, although he had previously worked a little bit on the Houston Press. Houston had 3 daily newspapers at that time: the Press, the Post and the Chronicle. He also, for 3 or 4 years I believe, in the late 1920s and the early 1930s, there was a terrific magazine here called the Houston Gargoyle. You still can find copies around town. It was a terrific magazine. It had the look of the New Yorker and he wrote for that magazine. I think the Depression finally brought about its demise and at that point in 1933, he went to work for the Houston Post as a reporter but primarily quickly that evolved into being the drama/music/film critic, and he also had a daily column for most of his career there, wrote a daily column.
He and my mother met there at the Post, so I say, thank you, Houston Post! Here I am today talking about that so, yes, you asked about my father’s career so I combine it with my mother’s because once they met and got married, that pretty much . . . it did not end her professional career – it did pretty much end her career at the Houston Post because then she became a housewife and started having babies but she later then got heavily involved with the Houston Little Theater which was a dynamic theater here in Houston in the 1930s and 1940s.
DG: So you were born with ink in your veins?
PR: Born definitely with ink in my veins. I grew up in a newspaper family, around journalism, hanging out in the city room of the Houston Post which, there were two Houston Posts on Dowling Street here and the first one I hung out in was on one side of the street . . . they later closed that one and built a brand new one right across the street there on Dowling. And, of course, in later years, the Post moved out to Southwest Freeway but that original Post, I can tell you . . . I was just a young kid kind of hanging on to my father’s pants leg there . . . Friday nights which were really the big nights in those days in the newspaper business because you were not only getting out the Saturday paper, you were getting out primarily the things that were going to go in the Sunday paper. I can still remember Friday nights around that city room at the Houston Post, and in those days, you had people just in and out of there trying to . . . people of all kinds. A lot of PR people and people wanting to get stories in the paper. It was a world that does not exist anymore but it was a fascinating place to grow up in, for me to hang around in.
I will never forget what my father said about the newspaper business one time. I was talking to him about why he chose that as a career and he said, “Well, this is a business where you put the world together every day.” I thought that was a pretty good description, and that is what appealed to me. When he said that to me, I kind of thought well maybe that is what I should do. And I saw what my parents did and I saw the people they came in contact with, and as I got older, I became fascinated by it and hopefully came to appreciate it and the world that it introduced you to. It was like my dad said – you were putting the world together every day so yes, it was a great way to grow up in Houston, Texas.
DG: Where did you go to school?
PR: My first schooling was at St. John’s School which was founded and opened in1 1946. I was in the first kindergarten glass the first day of that school in 1946. I did not have a real great first day, I can tell you, because – I wish my mother was here to tell this but apparently she let me out and I went in and, you know, what are you, 5 years old when you start kindergarten? I can barely remember a little bit of it but apparently I made a U-turn, went back out the door, took a hard left down the boulevard there and proceeded basically to exit school. And, at some point, they finally sent somebody after me. By then, I had gotten way down there a pretty good ways from school and they sent somebody who came and kind of, I think talked to me a little bit and said, “Peter, maybe we need to go back to school,” which I finally did but that was my first day! I graduated from Lamar High School. I went across the street to Lamar High School. Then I went to the University of Houston. And the reason I went to the University of Houston was to go back to my father again, he being a man from the journalism field, I was kind of talking to him one day about where I was going to go to college and he finally said, “Well, why are you talking about going anywhere other than the University of Houston?” He said, “They’ve got one of the best communications departments in the country,” and you know, they did and they do. A lot of people forget this: they signed on the first -- now called PBS, of course – the first educational station in the United States. It was not in New York, it was not in Los Angeles, it was Houston, Texas. Channel 8 here was the first educational station to sign on the air. So with that kind of background, why wouldn’t you want to go there to get your training? And so, I did and I am glad I did. I had a great experience there.
DG: Tell us about the Houston of your youth. What did you do for fun? What were the boundaries? Where did you go?
PR: Well, the Houston of my youth was, first of all, the house that I grew up in which still exists – I am living in it now – was built just before World War II. There were still a lot of open areas out where it was, open fields that a youngster could roam around in and have a pretty good time. In my youth, what you did – this was before television, this was before computers – so what happened was you spent most of your time outdoors and you got to know all your neighbors up and down the street. You knew everybody. It was like one big family. The simple answer for me to your question is most days, you could find me . . . at the neighbors that lived kind of about 2 doors down, there was a big yard. It was 2 houses but they combined 2 yards and it made perfect sandlot football and baseball field. And there we were most days. Five or six of us that lived right there in that area playing football or baseball and occasionally breaking somebody’s window. But it was great. It was terrific. It was idyllic. It was almost like an ideal world for a young kid. In some ways, I guess, it was like growing up in a small town because it was like you were out in the country almost. The world was still pretty simple then. And you would go home and listen to the radio at night. You would kind of turn the dial trying to get far off stations. I remember, like a lot of kids, I was a big baseball fan and our team here was the Houston Buffs who played out in Buff Stadium on Gulf Freeway. But they weren’t a major league team, they were an AA farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals. Just to even be able to pick up a major league team’s game on the radio was, to me, a huge occurrence. At night, I would try to tune in the St. Louis station and you could get them sometimes and to listen to that announcer bringing you a baseball game all the way from St. Louis, that was pretty great stuff for a kid. I would sit there glued to that radio.
On Saturdays . . . this is kind of interesting and I am sure many have forgotten this. I lived right over by what is now called Rice Village just right there by Rice University. There was a theater there, a movie theater, the Village Theater, and on Saturday mornings because, again, there was no television at this time but on Saturday mornings, you would go down to the Village Theater and they would have a live stage show there where the manager of that theater had all kinds of contests for kids. Yo-yo contests, drawings, and you would participate in all that. And then, you would really be set – they would have 3 or 4 cartoons and then usually at least 1 or 2 serials, always which ended with some cliff-hanging episode that brought you back the next Saturday morning. And then usually topped off by a Roy Rogers or Gene Autrey western. And that is what you would do on Saturday morning. It was great stuff. So that is the world I grew up in. Also, I might add, many nights, we would sit – I am talking about in the summer now in Houston, Texas, we had a screened porch in the back – we would sit out on that screened porch, no air-conditioner, and it was great. You could feel the breeze from the Gulf. There wasn’t anything blocking it. And sometimes, you would need a blanket! Imagine that? So, you asked me a simple question, “What was the world I grew up in?” That is kind of just a summary of the world I grew up in and if you were to ask the question, ‘Well, then what happened?’, to me, there is kind of a line of demarcation there where a lot of it changed. All of a sudden, one day, you looked over at somebody else’s house and there was this funny looking object up on the top of it and you asked your mother, you said, “What is that over there on that house?” “Oh, I think that is a television antenna.” “Well, what is that all about?” That is when the world, or at least your life, began to change a little bit.
DG: What were you good at when you were a kid?
PR: Playing sandlot football, baseball. I was a little guy. Most of the other kids were bigger than I was, so I was always trying to hang in there and scrap with the others. I don’t know that I had any outstanding quality. I was fast, I was quicker than most of the others so usually in football, I could outrun people pretty good. I was blessed with good physical abilities. I was very agile and that helped me later in athletics and things that I participated in. Was I a great student? No. It became apparent to me at some point that obviously my strength did like though however in what I ultimately pursued in a career which were things where you were writing, things that were journalistic-oriented and news-oriented, although I did for a while flirt with the thought that I wanted to be an electrical engineer. I got quickly cured of that though when it was apparent to me I had no aptitude in math. And what spurred my interest in that was one of my hobbies as a kid was hand radio operator. I became an amateur radio operator. I still have my license, in fact. I was not good on the technical side of it. What fascinated me was the communicating with other people, talking to other people around the world and I was fascinated by that and that is what led me to that as a hobby and I made many great friends over the years as a result of that hobby. My mother always encouraged it because she said she liked that as a hobby because it kept you indoors at your house. She said, “I always knew where you were.” And so, she had a good point there.
DG: That 20 years of your early life from the end of World War II to probably the 1960s, judging from when you said you were born, that is an important time in American history, from the post war boom, the economic boom, and then the troubles that came with the 1960s, the conflicts that came with the 1960s. Do you remember any of that from the perspective of being a young person in Houston or when you got to college?
PR: Well, just to finish up on your previous thought, to go into that previous thought about growing up, as I got older, my parents had a 1949 Chevrolet. That is how I learned how to drive. And, you know, this was a stick shift with a clutch, pushing in the clutch. I mean, those things were hard to drive and they were big and bulky, but that is what I learned to drive on. So I finally got to be driving age and you look at that car today, it is like a tank. It was a pretty big car. You know, my life was a little different, I guess, than some kids in that, again, I was the youngest of 3 children who were all 9 years apart. My sister, she was a ballerina. She had an active career here in the theater in Houston. There was an organization called Summertime Light Operator, it was a predecessor of what we know as T.U.T.S. nowadays, and they did the musicals at the Music Hall here. So I grew up hanging around her shows and around rehearsals and around all that world. And then, tagging along with my parents to all the things that my dad covered. I was blessed. I got to see, you name it, just about all the arts attractions that came to Houston. I won’t dwell on all that now but just as an example. This city, at Christmas time, the Ballet Russe de Montecarlo which was the premier ballet company of its day. It had originally been founded in Paris in 1909 and here it was in Houston, I mean, they came here from the 1930s through the 1950s but here I was in the late 1940s going to it with my dad and mother and it was like stepping into a world that is just like a fantasy world. They had these dancers who were legends of their time like Alexander Danilova who was one of the great ballerinas of all times and I still remember going backstage at the Music Hall and you go into this dressing room – she was there by herself kind of holding . . . it was like you were in the presence of a god. It was fascinating. They would come to Houston, that company, and this was a company that . . . Leon Massine and all these legends of ballet that have been a part of it -- Nijinsky and Pavlova were original members of and here they were in Houston. They used to come here for 2 weeks almost at Christmas time. It is hard to imagine that. And they would do matinees and evening performances. It was incredible. Sometimes they would come over to our house. I would actually get to meet these dancers and it was like you were meeting your heroes. So I was so blessed to grow up around that. Now the reality is, at the time, was I real excited about some of the things that my dad and mother dragged me along to? No, I wasn’t. Oh gosh, I’ve got to go sit through the opera tonight. I’d rather be out at the Rice football game or whatever it was because sports was my interest, but I am so fortunate that my parents did take me along to all those things because somewhere, that was inculcating in me an appreciation for all those things and years later, particularly when I was in Washington, D.C., I would see some of these companies that I first came to know in Houston like the American Ballet Theater which used to come here. It was originally called Ballet Theater and they would come here and my father knew Lucia Chase, the woman that founded it and whatnot, and I would see them in Washington and I would say, “I want to go see that because I know that company. They used to come to Houston.” And then, I would think I am so lucky that my parents did take me to those things because I appreciate it now. Maybe when I was 7, 8 years old, I did not fully. There were an endless number of things like that. So I was lucky, very lucky, as a kid growing up here and saw the aspects of life that hopefully really benefitted me later and met people, particularly from the arts world, that I was very fortunate to meet. So your question now was about as things began to change.
DG: Through your eyes, some of the things that were happening on a national scale and some of the things that were happening locally. I mean, you lived through 2 important eras – the boom of the 1950s and then, of course, the conflicts that came with the 1960s. You graduated from University of Houston in 1965?
DG: So you caught 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964 – I mean, those early 1960s years as a college student in Houston. So, to the extent that you remember and think it is an important part of the narrative, do you have any memories, significant memories of either the boom or the turbulent times?
PR: Well, I can tell you this. Throughout my life and my career, I have been very fortunate in so many ways. I guess I am somebody that sits here. In some cases, I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. At the same time, as anyone discovers in life, sometimes that kind of luck occurs when you work hard and do things that other people take notice of maybe, but it was also fortunate for me to be associated with people who I had great respect for and who helped me so much in mentoring ways.
But your question is about the 1960s. Here is the perspective I had. About halfway through my career at the University of Houston, like many college students, I was still trying to sort out in my mind what I was going to do in life. I kind of thought I knew but really did not yet have a handle on it. One night, I happened to be up at my dad’s office at the Post. This would have been 1963. At that time, I was majoring in radio and television at the University of Houston. The radio and TV department each year made a documentary film – now this is in the days before videotape, of course. We are talking about black and white 16 mm film – that they would enter in some of these like national student contests, and I belonged to an organization which was called Alpha Epsilon Rho, which was an honorary radio and TV student fraternity. What happened was I was up in my father’s office one night in 1963 and this would have been like September of 1963, and he and one of his assistants were make a movie at that time down in Wharton, Texas, right down the road here. And it starred Steve McQueen and Lee Remick who, at that time, by today’s – they would have been two of the premier stars of that period. I had just seen “The Great Escape” with Steve McQueen. I had just seen “The Days of Wine and Roses” which, I might add, was written by a Houstonian, someone who went to Rice. I had just seen these two people. So his assistant was going down there to do a story. I said, “Hey, do you mind if I tag along?” He said, “Not at all.” Well, the next thing I know, the next day, I am down at Columbus, Texas, and here are Steve McQueen and Lee Remick and I am meeting them! I met the director whose name was Robert Mulligan who later directed many excellent films including “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Summer of ‘42” and some major motion pictures. Long story short was I got back to Houston and I got to thinking about that because the PR man there at the movie, down there with the film crew, had mentioned him. He said, “They were thinking about having a documentary made about shooting that movie on location there.” I got back here to Houston and I thought, well gosh, that would be a great subject matter for our student film. And so, I went to my dad and I said, “Hey, Dad, I’ve got this idea.” I told him what it was and he looked at me and he said, “Well, don’t tell me about it. You go get the movie people to see if they are interested.” What I was hoping he would say, of course, was that he would call them and kind of pave the way for me, see if he would talk to them. He did not offer that, he put it back to me as rightfully he should have. The end of it was finally I got back in touch with the director and after some back and forth, they agreed that they would let us do it. So I ended up for 2 months with other students we made a documentary behind the scenes of how this film which was written by Horton Foote, who was from Wharton and an excellent playwright whose plays have been done here at the Alley Theater and various theatres around the world, we made a documentary about the making of that film. Having that opportunity kind of them settled for me in my mind. I said, this is what I want to do, is be a filmmaker of some kind because I enjoyed that experience and it was such a unique opportunity. I might add the last day we were on location down there filming with the crew, the movie they were making was entitled “The Traveling Lady.” It was from a play by Horton Foote. They changed the title later for the movie, it was called “Baby, The Rain Must Fall.” There was a song that became associated with it. But on the last day of filming, it was late in the morning – I’ll never forget this – and they were filming a scene there and somebody said, “Cut.” We were in kind of a neighborhood area but there were trucks all parked in the street where they had their equipment and cables and things and somebody walked up to me – I was just standing over to the side kind of, and somebody came up to me and said, “Hey, somebody just said something has happened to President Kennedy in Dallas. Do you know anything about that?” I said, “No.” And then I remembered, yes, he was supposed to be in Dallas that day so I went over to one of the panel trucks that was there and we turned on the radio and sure enough, we discovered what the world had found out, the events that occurred in Dallas that day. So people always ask, “Where were you at that moment?” Well, I was on a film set with Steve McQueen and Lee Remick. But out of that, I thought, that’s what I want to do for a career. So yes, you are right – I got out of college then in 1965 and I thought, well yes, I am going to pursue that. Well, I kind of bounced around a little bit, I guess like many do when you first get out of college. Then, I kind of got to thinking. I thought, well, that is something I can do later. Maybe I need to go get a job first and probably what I am best suited to do is be a reporter, so I need to go find a newspaper that will give me a job. I wanted to be a sportswriter. I thought, you know, I do not think I want to start out here, because my dad was still writing in the Post then and I thought it probably would be good for me to go somewhere else and get started. I applied several places. Well, while I was doing that, some friend of mine said to me, he said, “Have you interviewed with any advertising or PR firms here?” and I said, “No.” He said, “Well, I hear they hire people that have majored in what you majored in. You might want to think about that,” which I hadn’t at that point. Of course, again, the world was so different then. We did not have computers and all these job sites to go to so what did I do? I got the Yellow Pages out and looked up advertising agencies and just started calling up saying, hey . . . well, finally I got one that said, “Well, if you want to come by, we will walk to you.” Did not sound too enthusiastic. So I went over there, I got the interview. I do remember, and this is a great piece of advice that I pass on to others . . . I went to my dad and I said, “Dad, I’ve got this interview at this advertising agency. I am kind of nervous because I am not sure what they . . . I am supposed to meet with the vice-president. I kind of feel a little intimidated.” Well, he looked me in the eye and said, “To heck with that. Intimidated? You go in there and interview that guy. Don’t you be intimidated. You put it back on him. Ask him how he got started. Ask him what he likes about it.” I thought, well, that is not bad advice because that way, I will not have to answer any questions, too. So, I did. I got over there and it was over on Robinhood. I walked in and they said, yeah, O.K. I said, “Well, look, Mr. Brown, I would just like to ask you a few questions.” I started in. Well, the next thing, I am interviewing him. This goes on for about 30 minutes. Finally I looked and I said, well, that’s my time . . . said, “Thank you very much.” I was out of there. He said, “Well, wait a minute, I haven’t asked you anything.” I said, “Well, you said you had 30 minutes,” so I left. By the time I got home, my mother said, “Somebody called here from an advertising agency. They want to see you again this afternoon.” So I went back over there and he said, “Hey, you showed some initiative.” I did not have the heart to tell him I was following my father’s advice, but they offered me an internship. Believe me, there is an end to this story and I am coming to it now. And it was great. I started out as an intern there, I started learning the business. It was called Rives Dyke, was the name of the agency, and it was excellent. They had excellent people. I had spent 3 months in the art department, 3 months in copy, 3 months in production, 3 months in the different departments learning the business. What happened was I had been there about 3 or 4 months and one day . . . this was the fall of 1966. There was a senate race in Texas going on that year. Senator John Tower was running for reelection and it just so happened that this ad agency was handling his commercials, doing his TV and radio and print materials for that campaign. The person that was doing that for the agency one day said to me, very kindly so, “Hey, would you like to come along with me up to Bryan? I am going up there to meet the Senator and we are going to be doing some production work for the campaign.” I said, “Yes, sure. It is a great opportunity.” I did not have the heart to tell him that I was not sure I was for Senator Tower and, you know, I had kind of a latent interest in politics, not an active interest. It was all right. I was mildly interested in it but it was not an overwhelming kind of thing in my life at that point. I was still thinking I am going to be a journalist of some kind. But that set of circumstances coming together right there certainly changed my life and pretty much set the course for what was to follow.
DG: You gave the perfect answer.
PR: You do the best you can.
DG: So continue the narrative for us then and include the things you deem important. You met Senator Tower, had your first taste of politics. What happened after that? I know your first job of your own was with a congressional campaign for George Bush but how did you get to there? Fill in the narrative for us, the timeline.
PR: The way I got to there was this. To pick up on where I just left off. So, yes, I went to Bryan, Texas, to a TV station in Bryan, with this account executive from the ad agency. Well, here comes United States senator in. Gee, that is kind of interesting. I remember at some point during the day, we were in a little hotel there in the lobby and all of a sudden, here came this group of people into the lobby. Kind of a beehive of people that I could clearly see were reporters. Most of them were print reporters with pencils and pads. Few cameras. Few recorders for radio reporters but about 10 or 12. Just this beehive of activity. And right in the middle was a person, a man, and they were all kind of . . . it was kind of just moving along, this little beehive. Well, I was fascinated by that and I turned to the account executive with the ad agency and I said, “What is that? What is going on there?” He said, “Oh, that’s Tower’s press secretary.” And, do you know something? It was like an epiphany in your life, just like that. I saw that and right away, I said to myself, that is what I want to do. I had finally hit on the profession that kind of combined all the things that it brought me to that moment. My theatrical background from my . . . it was drama, it was theater of a sort, it was journalism. Yes, it was politics and yes, it was kind of exciting, it was interesting, and it was news reporting. It was all the things that my background had kind of funneled me into and here it was brought together in one job kind of. It was really, at that moment, I said that is what I want to do. So when things died down a little later, I went over to him, introduced myself and I said, “How does one get a job like yours?” And he basically said, “Come to Washington.” He said, “Every senator and most members of Congress have a press secretary.” And I said to myself, that is what I want do. Now, the reality was it did not work out right away that I immediately went to Washington and, you know, this would be a Hollywood ending that it all happened that way. What happened was I went back after the campaign was over. Senator Tower won the election so the agency was certainly pleased by that and I learned a lot and I met a lot of the people involved in the campaign so that was my first introduction. I met a lot of reporters. As an example one of the people that was covering that campaign who I am good friends with to this day was Jim Lair who has had quite a career with PBS but he was a cub reporter for the Dallas Times Herald and we often laugh about how we sat on the floor over at the Holiday Inn in Beaumont and talked about what we wanted to do in life. I can still remember, he wanted to be a writer. He wanted to write novels. Well, he has written novels. His other career though has been certainly as an excellent newscaster. So I got introduced to all that kind of thing. I was fascinated by it and I knew that is what I wanted to do. So I went back to the head of the agency who had hired me, I said, “Gene, we’ve got to get more of this political business,” and he said, “Oh, we’ll do Towers’ campaign every 6 years. You build an agency on business accounts and things.” Well, I did not want to hear that. I said, “Well, I want to do more politics.” He said, “Well, you are on a good track here. Just keep on the track you are on here.” Well, that was done.
So just to fast forward, during 1969, early 1969, which would have been the Texas legislature was in session. By then, I had left that advertising agency. I wanted to be in the political world. I wanted to be a press secretary. So the Texas legislature was in session and at that time, there were just a handful of Republicans in the legislature, and somebody asked me if I would be interested during the session to go up there to Austin for the session and basically function as the press representative, press aide, to those few Republican members of the legislature -- do their newsletters, do their press releases. I said, “Sure.” A tremendous opportunity. So I was sitting there in April of 1969 doing that, sitting there with my little manual typewriter across the street from the Capitol knocking out press releases and the phone rang one day. It was then a second term congressman from Houston whose name was George Bush. He was in Austin and gave a speech that night, and someone had recommended . . . my name had come before him somehow. He said he wanted to visit with me. Wow, I thought, that is terrific. I will never forget, he said, “I’ve got to go do a press conference at the Capitol, why don’t you just meet me out in front of the Capitol and walk over there with me?” I said, “I’ll be there.” So I met him. We walked right up the front walk of the Capitol there, into the Capitol, and while we walked, he, in a very nice way, began to talk about what I was interested in and if I was interested in coming to Washington, D.C. to be his press secretary. Well, I thought I had died and gone to heaven because, one, he was offering me the kind of job I wanted and, two, it was for somebody who . . . I really did not know him well. I had met him a few times just to shake hands but I kind of admired him from afar, as someone – hey, there is a guy that is articulate, he seems clean-cut, I like what he is doing in politics. So I thought, golly, who would ever have thought . . . here I am! It is happening for me. So he said later that day . . . at that time, he had an administrative assistant named Jimmy Allison. A terrific guy. He said, “Why don’t you get together later on with Jimmy and work out the details?” I said, “Great.” We met for dinner that night and after dinner, we were parting ways and I will certainly never forget this . . . we were walking off into the night in different directions and Jimmy Allison yelled after me, and mind you now, this is in April of 1969 and, at that point, George Bush was just a second term congressman, but I will never forget, Jimmy Allison yelled back at me, he said, “Hey, Pete, one other thing.” I said, “What?” He said “Stick with George. Some day, he is going to be president.” I never forgot that. And, of course, that prophesy ultimately came true – that the path was sometimes like this. Unfortunately, Jimmy Allison did not live to see his prophesy fulfilled but, your question is how I got there. Well, that is how I got there.
DG: When you took that job at the state legislature, did you pursue it because it was the first opportunity to do that kind of work or because it was a Republican opportunity?
PR: I had now worked in a couple of campaigns in Texas so I got to know some of the officials – the state chairman and the national committee man, the national committee woman. You get to know people. And so, some of them knew me from those experiences. I cannot even remember now – I believe it was the state chairman that called me up about that so that is how that came about and we went from there.
DG: So the stars align for you, you got the job you want, you are headed to Washington. Tell us about that first stint there and the experience and what you learned and what you experienced.
PR: I learned a lot in a short amount of time. To me, there is no more fascinating place to work . . . let’s just start with the city of Washington, D.C. I mean, what more fascinating place to work? It is kind of like my dad said, “It is where they put the world together.” Helen Thomas one said, in my later years when I was working in the White House, she said something I never forgot about that very subject. We were talking about her long career and why she covered the White House all these years. She had a real simple answer to it – “all roads lead to Rome.” And I understood what she was saying.
Working on Capitol Hill is a terrific experience, especially when you are young. Boy, there is an energy there. At least there was . . . all I can tell you is there sure was in the fall of 1969. I mean, it was just electric the atmosphere in those days, and probably is still today for somebody that is 27, 28 years old that goes to work there. Every minute was just exciting. And you were constantly learning. Here was Bush, he was on the Ways and Means Committee, the Tax Writing Committee, and here was Wilbur Mills. All these names that I followed from afar and here I was working around them and passing in the hallway! And you would think I am involved with this. I am here. This is history. For me, the real aspect of that that excited me, of course, was I was coming in contact with journalists who were my heroes and sometimes you just would see them from afar there in the town and you would think, golly, there goes Bob Novak. There goes Rowland Evans. There is Dave Broder. I mean, these were my heroes, these journalists for whom I had great respect. So it was exciting being around all that and here I was working for someone, this young, energetic congressman who seemed to be going places and I was part of that, and you are along for the ride. I mean, you are not just along for the ride, you are working and hopefully doing your part, but you are motivated by him and your desire to work hard and excel. It was a terrific opportunity and a terrific time. I look back on it now – what a great way to start out in Washington. I was very fortunate my Washington career because, you know, many people go to Washington and just serve in one job for maybe 4, 6, 8 years, whatever it is. I got to do a wide variety in Washington. I got to work on Capitol Hill there as a press secretary to a congressman. Then, I got to work at the United Nations for 2 years. A totally different arena. The diplomatic foreign policy arena. Then to come back to Washington for 2 years and to work for the chairman of the Republican National Committee, the partisan political side helping run one of the two great political parties in this country. And then, lastly, for me, ending up getting to serve 2 presidents in the White House. What more could you want from a career in Washington? I don’t mean to sound repetitious but I was blessed. So, there it is in a nutshell.
DG: You have written a terrific book about your time in the White House, Ruffled Flourishes.
PR: It is a novel. It is fiction.
DG: Any elements of truth, any elements of your experience that you drew on to help you write that book?
PR: Well, it is about the relationship between the press and the presidency. The theme of that book hopefully that comes across to people is that as in any person’s job in life, yes, you are in a very high stakes arena. There is tremendous pressure in the relationship – the daily give and take between reporters covering a president and a spokesperson for that president. But, like in any other job, there are also, in the midst of all that, on almost any day, there is some moment of humor or some unexpected moment of humor that just for a few seconds helps you take a deep breath and helps get you through the rest of the day so you don’t go just like that, through the roof. And that is what that book is about. Yes, I saw that on a number of occasions. The public does not get to see that. They see very little of that. What you see is a 30 second sound bite on the news at night or read the story in the newspaper. What you do not see is the 10-12 hours that went on to put that story together, and all the to and fro, both humorous and dramatic. What my book also hopefully does, it takes and shows a person, the public, in my view, why the job of a press spokesman in the White House is the toughest job there. And I say that because it is the only job there where you have to serve not just one constituent which is the president, your administration – you have two constituents to serve and the other one is the press. You have to be responsive to both of those. And you are right in the middle of that taffy pull. It is a tester. I get asked all the time, “What do you think about this press secretary?” My answer to that one is simple: I have great respect for anybody that does that job in any administration because I appreciate how tough it is. Mainly because you have 2 essential things to offer in that job. One of them, you put above all others and that is your credibility. Your word. Your honesty. Your bond. Hey, I am telling you something, it is the truth. And hopefully, you also have some knowledge you can dispense that helps enlighten and inform the American people about what their president is doing. So that is what that book is about, hopefully.
DG: You were witness to some significant events. You were part of President Bush’s outreach to the People’s Republic of China. You accompanied President Reagan on a Summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev. There is a lot to cover there in terms of 2 presidents and all these things, so let me ask you to sum it up for us. I am going to ask you what your best day on the job was and your worst day on the job was. You can pick whichever you want to tell first.
PR: Well, let’s start with the best. Anybody that has worked in that arena often gets asked that question and the answer you hear a lot from people is it is hard to single out one, and I agree with that. There are so many. I mean, I could probably sit here and give you 100. But in my case, I will single out one although there were many and the one I would single out certainly was the most fascinating. It was my very first day on the job in the Reagan White House. The first hours there, I believe it was the first day as I recall . . . I was here in Houston, I was working here at that time . . . we are talking about now, early 1981 . . . I was working for what was then called the Houston Chamber of Commerce, and a former mayor of Houston, Louie Welch, was the head of it at that time and asked me to come to work there. I appreciated that opportunity. I was enjoying it. I had just come out . . . my most recent Washington experience had been serving as a staff assistant to President Ford in the White House and then later helping our fellow Houstonian, Jim Baker, run President Ford’s presidential campaign in 1976. And then, in 1978 here, I helped run Jim Baker’s campaign for attorney general of Texas. So here I was working at the Houston Chamber of Commerce and the phone rang one day and somebody said, “Hey, Pete, did you hear what just happened in Washington?” I said, “What?” And, as we know, there was an attempt on President Reagan’s life and also seriously wounded by good friend, Jim Brady, who I had known in Washington. Of course, like everyone else, I flicked the television on and here I see my friend, Larry Speaks, who was a friend of mine who I had worked with in the Ford White House. He is there briefing reporters. And having been around that environment, I knew, boy, there was a lot going on there. So I sent Larry a telegram as I recall just saying, hey, if you need me for anything, you know you can count on me but I did not want to bother him either because I know how it is. I had been there in those . . . you’ve got to focus on what you are dealing with at the moment. It seems to me it was not too long after that – maybe a few weeks – I got a call from Jim Baker, our fellow Houstonian who is then the Chief of Staff in the White House. He said, “I am coming down to Houston in a couple of weeks. I have to give a speech over at the Shamrock Hotel,” which still existed then – the great Shamrock Hotel! The legendary Shamrock Hotel which I often swam in as a kid. But he said, “Meet me over there. I want to talk to you.” I had a pretty good idea of what it might be about so I went over and met him that morning and he started in “About, hey, look, you know, Brady has had this occur to him and Speeks is swamped right now. You know us. You have worked in the White House. You could come up there and you could help us right now.” Well, of course. Why is going to say no under those circumstances? I said, “Jim, you don’t have to go any further. I am there.” Just on a whim, I said . . . he knew my mother. My mother and his mother were from the same era of Houston women. My mother had a fig tree in her backyard and she used to make fig preserves and she used to send them to Jim Baker in Washington. He liked those fig preserves. So he knew my mother some. So on a whim, I said, to him, I said, “Bake, I’ll tell you what. I will do it if my mother things I should do it.” He said, “O.K., let’s go see her right now.” I am thinking yeah, right! Here is the Chief of Staff in the White House and he’s got everything on his plate right now and he wants to go see my mother? We get in the car, we drive over to her house unannounced, walk in, it is mid morning. She is sitting there at her desk in the living room, looks up, nobody says a word, she looks up and she says, “Oh Jim, you know he is going to do it.” I said, “Thank you, Mother!” And, of course, I was, which I thought said a lot about Jim Baker, that he would take time to go by there and say hello to her which I deeply appreciated him doing. And I took some pictures of them holding the fig preserves. I wish I would had brought it and got to show it here. To go to your point though, the best day, which I would describe as certainly the most fascinating day is my first hours there. Well, it was late in the afternoon and Baker buzzed me. He said, “Come back to my office right away.” So I got up there finally a few weeks later and just started work. It was 4th of July weekend, so this would have been like July 7, a Monday. I believe it was July 7, a Monday. You will have to get somebody to fact check these to make sure I am telling the exact dates. He said, “Come back to my office.” I went back to his office. He said, “Get on a plane right away and go to Phoenix, Arizona.” I said, “What?” He said, “Get on a plane right now. You are going to have to fly all night to get out there to be out there in the morning but go now.” I said, “O.K. Do you want to fill in the blank for me here?” He said, “Yes, tomorrow morning at 10 a.m., President Reagan is going to walk into the briefing room here at the White House and he is going to announce the appointment of a woman in Phoenix, Arizona, a judge out there named Sandra Day O’Connor. He is going to announce her nomination to the United States Supreme Court.” The first female Supreme Court justice, historic nomination. He said, “I have told her that you are on the way and that you will help her out there because when this gets out, she is going to be swamped with press. I thought to myself, wow! You know, the first thought I had was, ‘Hey Pal, you have probably just been given, in my view, one of the greatest assignments ever handed to a press spokesperson. And the reason it was, was because, look, most of the things we do in our lives have happened at least once in some form. That was about to happen for the first time and it was only going to happen for the first time once. I thought, this is history and I am right in the middle of it. He said, “You had better get going.” So I take off. I run down the hall there in the West Wing. It was late in the afternoon and I quickly called to get a plane so I could get out there. I got to my office, it was late in the day. It was like 3:30, 4:00 in the afternoon. Most everybody drifted off. The reporters mostly had drifted off. I just grabbed a few things off my desk. I turned and there standing in the doorway was the last person I wanted to see at that moment. It was Helen Thomas, Dean of the White House Press Corps. I thought she is going to look at me and figure this out. I could not even look at her. I kept my head down. And she was going anywhere. I am looking at my watch thinking I’ve got to get going here. And finally, she said, “It sure was a slow news day today.” And I said, “Well, Hel, it just was a Monday – there just wasn’t much going on. She said, “I have been around this White House a long time.” I said, “Oh, I know you have, Helen.” She said, “ I have been around here long enough to know when it gets this low, I get an ache in my bones.” She said, “Right now, that ache is telling me something is going on here.” I thought, oh man, I don’t need this. I put my head down and just shot past her there over to the door that led out to the hallway. I did not look back. I said, “You never know, Helen.” I was gone. Flew all night. Got out to Phoenix. Got a car, drove out to this judge’s house there – somebody I had never met and I had not talked to her yet. About to meet her for the first time. Rang the doorbell. She came to the door. She said, “Yes?” She was very cordial. Greeted me. Said, “Come on in. We are having breakfast. Sit down and have some breakfast with us.” It was her husband and 3 sons were there. Started having a nice visit and finally, she said, “You know, they are saying I should not talk to the press or do anything after the announcement, after President Reagan makes the announcement.” She asked me what I thought about that. I thought to myself, well, I guess this is one of those moments in life where either I deliver the goods or I do not. And frankly, I wanted to show her that that is why I was there. I was not there just to be a totey or something, I was there to give her my best advice. So I said, “Judge, I understand that. I think what we should do is after President Reagan makes the announcement in Washington, that we go to your chamber here, you gather your family behind you and you can express personally what this means to you.” I said, “Now, you will get a range of other questions and basically, you have one answer to those and that is I’ll be addressing all those other type questions at my confirmation hearings before the United States Senate.” She said, “O.K.” So, we finished breakfast. We were driving on in to her office then. She was driving. I was riding there, just the two of us. We got stuck in a traffic jam. I am sitting there taking notes. I am interviewing her so I can put a bio together. “Where were you born?” Well, it turned out she was a native Texan, had been born in El Paso, so I said, “Hey, we are fellow native Texans.” I said, “I am from Houston.” All of a sudden, I looked at my watch and I flicked the radio on and the announcer said, “And that was President Reagan from Washington having announced the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor to the United States Supreme Court.” I looked at her. I said, “Nobody will ever believe where you were at this moment. Here we are in a traffic jam in downtown Phoenix.” So, she laughed. We had a good laugh about it. So then, the day went on and it all worked out fine but what a moment, what a fascinating moment to have been right in the middle of. So your question was if I had to single out one, that is not bad for one of your first days on the job, you know! There were many others. Your other part of that was what was the toughest?
DG: The toughest day or worst day.
PR: I know I can look you in the eye and say I did not have a worst day. I never thought of it that way. Yes, there were a lot of tough days. How can you have a bad day when you are working in the White House? Yes, there are days when it is really tough but you are also working in the peoples’ house. You are working in this arena where so much history has flowed through it and you think . . . I tried to keep it all in perspective when I was there. In fact, a lot of nights when I walked out the door, I would look back over my shoulder and I would pinch myself and I would say, do you realize how lucky you are to be here doing this? So few people get this opportunity. So give it everything you’ve got here while you are here because you’ve got the rest of your life to kind of sit back and reflect. It is hard to stay anchored there at times because you are in the middle of so much that is going on but I never thought of it as a worst day. There were many days, boy, when you got Helen, Thomas and Sam Donaldson after you all day long, that is a tough day. When I give speeches now, oftentimes I will look out at the crowd and I will say, “It is great to look out at so many friendly faces,” because there have been days . . . but, do you know something? I am glad I had that experience because it prepared me for anything else I might face in the rest of my career and life. After that, nothing phased me again. I can remember times here in my business career here, my public relations career where, yes, you would be in some key situation and then I would think, man, I survived the White House Press Corps. That is an experience that is very unique and hopefully I walked away from it with my head held high and the respect of peers and adversaries and, to this day, I am friends with many of those people and I appreciate that, including Helen Thomas. So, what else? We have about expended my life here.
DG: You mentioned you had two constituencies to serve. You had your president and then you had the Press Corps. This is probably a perception that is common in some circles but press secretaries try to serve those two constituencies in that sometimes the whole truth and nothing but the truth is a casualty of that tug between those two constituencies. Can you speak of that during your time there? Did you ever find yourselves in situations and I say this acknowledging first that in doing research for this interview, I found the word credibility attached to you, that you were known for maintaining your credibility, your integrity during that time you were there in office all those years. So clearly you found the right balance but were there days when it was particularly difficult to maybe know more than you could share and still feel like you were doing a good job serving both constituencies?
PR: Well, if you found in your research the word “credibility” linked with my name, as far as I am concerned, that is the highest compliment you could pay me, and I say that quite sincerely. As a press spokesman, that is what it is all about. If you don’t have that, you might as well pack up your Adidas and hook them on out of there. That is where it all begins and ends. There is no alternative to that. If you are going to proceed in that job, I do firmly believe that. No, I never lied. I was never asked to lie and I would not have if I had been. Now that is me. I cannot speak for others. Yes, there are many days when there is just so much you can say on a certain issue so you have to find a way to deal with that, as I say, without lying, without misleading people. You do. Otherwise, go find another job would be my advice to anybody. As I said, I have great respect for those that do it. It is very challenging and you are right in the middle of that. Boy, my hair probably should be totally grey by now from that. But, you know, I will say this – it is like anybody’s job in life. What you do, after you have done it a few times, every time you do it, you get better at it. We all do. Whatever our profession is. We learn every day. We pick up some new technique every day. And that is true of that job. I found after a certain point, there is a certain rhythm to it. There is a certain process. There is a certain way you work. Now, I was fortunate in the people that not only I worked with but the reporters I had to work with. I also kind of got in on the tail end of the print news media era when you still had a fair number – it is diminished now in numbers – of daily newspaper reporters, print reporters that you worked with. Most of them are gone now. And I do not want to sit here and cite various names because then I will say, oh, I left out somebody. But I had great respect for them and they were very professional in the way they did their job. Now, yes, they were tough. They asked tough questions, as they should. They played the game tough but fair and that, to me, was how it should be. So I do not know if I answered your question or not.
DG: Yes. What led to your decision to leave Washington and the public life and come back to Houston?
PR: I guess, for me, you find out . . . again, I was fortunate in everything I had gotten to do and with whom I had gotten to do it. So, you know, you wake up one day when you are there in those jobs, too . . . you wake up one day and you say, “Gosh, I am about to be 50 years old. My life is kind of moving by here pretty quickly,” which it does when you are in that line of work. It is long hours and you pretty much do not have . . . that is what you have devoted to so you do not have other dimensions to your life and you finally think, O.K., well, I am coming to a fork in the road here. Am I going to keep doing something like this or do I want to go on and do some other things in life? I chose the latter because, again, I had fulfilled every hope I guess I could have for working. I mean, to serve not once but twice in the White House – that is enough for one lifetime, as far as I am concerned. And what I was just coming off there, the years with President Reagan, all the fascinating . . . and you ticked through some of them there . . . experiences I had. I thought, this is probably a good time to walk away from this. As far as I am concerned, I made the right decision. Now, if you said, “Well, gosh, didn’t you miss it?” Yes. When I first came back to Houston, oh, for a while there, I would be watching the news on television and I would think, gosh, I should be there! And then I would quickly think, no, you did your thing. You have had your time. It is somebody else’s turn now. It is like anything – the further I get from it, the less I have those pangs and that has been the case. And then, I started to get involved in other things here in Houston and that kind of . . . I have kept my hand in it, in a kind of distant way in that I do occasional commentary for radio and TV stations, commenting about the scene in Washington. So I am kind of doing it from the other side of the fence but that has been enough for me to kind of keep my interest . . . not keep my interest but from a participating standpoint, that is more than enough and I find it interesting to sit on the sidelines. But it is helpful for me, I think, to sometimes offer that commentary because I do have the dual perspective of having seen it and hopefully what I do when I do commentary, for people that might listen or see what I am doing is to say here is something you might want to keep in mind, that that person, in terms of the situation there right now. So hopefully, I am able to offer insights from that standpoint. Your question was about am I glad I made the decision I did to finally bring that phase of my life and my career to a close, and I am very glad I did. Frankly, too, you never know in life. I got back here after I came back from the White House and my mother was still alive then but it was about 4-5 months after I got back that she passed away so if I had not come back then, I would not have had that brief period of time with her and I feel fortunate that I did, so you just never know in life.
DG: Was that the main reason for you deciding to come back to Houston or had you considered another city?
PR: I really did not think about anywhere else. I talked to some people about other possibilities but I guess I just wanted to be back where the story began. This is my home. This is where I grew up. This is where I know people. It is a great city. As we know, the people are outgoing and friendly and personable. Why would I want to be anywhere else? I had had the Washington experience. It is a unique city. I love Washington. It is beautiful. It is physically just a beautiful city. It is exciting. It is energy. It is dynamic. But I had had that experience. I was ready to . . . I won’t say for a quieter life but I was just ready for a new experience – to reach out for something else and try something else new. So to answer your question, I kind of thought in the back of my mind I would come back to Houston.
DG: You went to Washington when you were 28 years old, which strikes me as precociously young, and you came from Houston, Texas. Did you perceive from other people any assumptions made because you came from Texas, because you came from Houston? We like to say down here, we find out somebody is from New York – some assumptions go with that. When you go to Washington, D.C., when you went to Washington, D.C., were any assumptions made because you were a Texan and a Houstonian?
PR: Do you mean the cliché image of a Texan or something like that?
PR: You know, in my case, I probably ran into less of that because it wasn’t so much about that I was from Texas or from Houston, it was more about who I was working for because that is the thing in Washington. “Oh, you are working for Congressman Bush. Oh, well, you know, my congressman is working with him on the taskforce on” . . . whatever it was. And also, Washington is a melting pot. There are people from every state there. There are people from all over the world there. You know, it is interesting . . . I have never had that question put to me in quite that way. Now that you are asking it and I am trying to think . . . oh, you know, somebody would say, “Oh, I know so and so in Houston. Do you know him? That usual kind of stuff everybody gets. But it was often more about the job than where I was from. And I think that is the nature of Washington because it is such a melting pot. Now, I must say I was always fascinated by the people with whom I was working because they were from so many different places and that fascinated me.
DG: So your story comes back full circle for where you began. You were here in Houston. I am sure that . . .
PR: We are about coming to the end of the story I would anticipate.
DG: Well, not the end of your story – just the end of this interview.
PR: Well, yes, hopefully not the end of my story. It is like I asked Helen Thomas not long ago, I said, “Helen, do you mind when people say you are a living legend?” She said, “No, I am glad to be living.
DG: There have been so many changes in Houston but what stands out in your mind, even from the time you were gone, from the time of your youth to now – this is the Houston Oral History Project so 20 years from now when people look back, they are going to want to hear your story but they are also going to want to hear the influence that Houston may have had on your story? The influence that Houston may have had on you personally. Looking back on it now with the perspective of the last couple of years and leaving and coming back, can you speak to that to the extent to which the city influenced you?
PR: Well, I guess you could say the city influenced me because it influenced my father and my mother. It steered them to jobs in the journalism field, primarily Houston Post which, if you want to just follow this to its ultimate conclusion, therefore, journalism was in my blood; journalism ultimately led me to the career I experienced. So, you know, a good answer to your question . . . I will never forget . . . I cannot remember how long it was before he passed away but it was certainly a pretty good while after he retired . . . my dad asked me one day if I would drive him down Main Street and drive him downtown because he had not been downtown in quite a few years, and I think he just wanted to see downtown. And we now would be talking about – this would have been probably in the late 1970s, mid late 1970s. I will never forget what he said. So, I did. I drove him right down Main Street, right there through the middle of town. He did not say much, he kind of was just looking and then finally just shook his head, kind of dropped his head. Finally he said, “It’s sad.” I said, “What, Dad?” And he said, “It’s sad.” I said, “What?” He looked up at what was around us there and he said, “There is not one theater marquee left on Main Street,” and he was right at that point. They were all gone. For what his life had been about, it had been about the theater and about the performing arts and what he had grown up and covered throughout his life. That symbol. He was talking now about the motion picture theaters but they were all gone at that point. That was very sad to him. And it is sad to me. I worked one summer as an usher at the Lowes State Theater right here on Main Street. You had the Lowes and the Metropolitan on Main and then further down on Main was the Kirby. And then, around the corner on Rusk was the Majestic. They were beautiful theaters. They were grand theaters. They went back to the Vaudeville era, these theaters. So that was . . . you asked about change – there was a change he saw. I went to the Kirby Theater when I was 13 years old. In those days, the prize fights, the heavyweight championship prize fights . . . what they would do is they would broadcast them from the city where the fight was into one of the motion picture theaters here. They called it a closed-circuit showing. They would shut down the theater for the night and you would go and sit there and then finally on the screen we would hear, “Now from Chicago, the heavyweight championship fight” between whoever it was. And you would sit there in the theater and watch that fight. Well, my dad when I was 13 took me to the Kirby Theater here on Main Street. It was the Rocky Marciano/Archie Moore which was a tremendous thing at the time. And here we were, sitting in a movie theater on Main Street in Houston, Texas watching this event -- I cannot remember if it was Yankee Stadium or where it was -- piped into Houston. That seems like nothing to anyone now but I can tell you, in 1955 or 1956, whenever that was, it was huge. It especially was huge to a 13-year-old kid. And the other thing I remember from that night when it was over . . . we were walking out of the theater and there was a man walking near us in a coat and hat and he was kind of by himself just walking along, and my dad kind of nudged me and he nodded. He said, “Do you know who that is?” I said, “No, sir.” He said, “That is Jesse Jones.” I knew the name and certainly its relevance to Houston. I remember my dad telling me later, he said . . . and Jesse Jones passed away not too long after that . . . I remember my dad said it was the last time he saw Jesse Jones alive. So this all goes by way of saying how Houston had changed for him at the end of his life. It had suddenly become this . . . it had gone from a city he grew up in, a town where he could walk across it as a boy and now, here it was, this massive metropolitan city. Now, for me, you say, how has it changed? Well, the obvious answer is growth and freeways and traffic and cars. It is not the simple life that I grew up playing sandlot football and baseball. To me, there are 2 things that changed the world, Houston and the world – the 2 things that affected the cities and cities like Houston and everywhere basically – our way of life. Number one was the introduction of television into our lives. All of a sudden, you were not out in your yard with the neighbors every night – you were inside watching this fascinating box and what was coming through it. And of course, to me, the other significant change that has done the same thing was the introduction into our lives of computers because now people sit at home on their computers. You are not outside. So those 2 things. Now, they are grand inventions. We know, golly, how they have changed the world but I grew up in a world that did not have either one of those. You had manual typewriters. I used to be fascinated to go down to the Houston Post and watched how they made up the newspaper there. The linotype operators and doing all . . . when I was in the White House with the reporters, the computers really came along for reporters about mid 1980s, early 1980s, and I will never forget one day getting on the press plane and up to that point, you still saw reporters toting around little manual typewriters and you would get in the press room . . . boy, there would be the clicking away and, to me, there was a romance to that. That was the world of journalism I knew, had grown up in and the world that I loved. And I will never forget, one day on the press plane, we got on the plane, we are flying somewhere and we handed out the speech texts and usually, the next thing, you would kind of hear everybody typing away on the plane. Well, I was sitting in the front of the plane and did not hear any typing that day. I looked around and I noticed everybody kind of had their head down working. I said, golly, what is going on? I got up and I started walking down the aisle, and on the previous trip where there had been somebody with a little manual typewriter typing away, all of a sudden, they had on their lab there was this thing with a keyboard on it but it had a little screen or something. I said, “What is that?” They said, “That is a laptop.” I said, “Oh, really? For a computer?” And they said, “Yes. Now as soon as I have my story written, I just take it and plug it in. It goes right to the newspaper. I do not have to phone anybody. It is done. And there we are. You asked how things have changed. But with that change, yes, it is great, it is incredible but it also took away that other era and the era of . . . I do not see printer’s ink, I do not hear the typewriter keys. Whenever I say that, “Oh, you are old-fashioned, Peter.” Yes, I probably am but I miss that. I am glad to be in the computer era and the television era and all the things that it brought with us.
I often wonder how my father would have . . . because he was gone before . . . I mean, television was certainly here but he was gone before computers got into the newspaper business. My sister thinks he would have adapted fine and I would hope so.
You asked about Houston and change – it has just changed in so many ways, and so many of the people I knew are gone now. You know, you hate it when you start to outlive people that were your friends. But I still have many friends here and that is one of the great things about this city, is the spirit of the people here and the friendliness and the loyalty and people do remember. You know, we are sitting here doing this interview in 2009, the end of 2009, and I hate to keep going back to my father but it was such an impact on my life . . . O.K., he retired in 1966 so as we are talking, it has been 43 years since his column appeared in the Houston Post. 43 years. And to this day, I still have people . . . I will be giving a talk somewhere and somebody will come up to me and they will go “Roussel? Roussel? Are you related to the Roussel that wrote in the paper here?” And I will say, “Yes. What do you remember?” “Oh yes, he was a critic.” And I think, that is 43 years ago! That is Houston and people still do remember it. I always say, well, my dad used to say, “It is always nice to be remembered” so I am going to tell you what I think he would tell you. But that is this city, too. It is a really nice thing when somebody does that. So I guess that is my commentary on Houston. My dad would say, too, that he saw the change and boy, look at what we have today in terms of the arts here. And that was what he tried to do, is help, encourage the arts, the growth of the arts in this city and boy, I wish he was here today to see all that is going on here in many, many forms. It is pretty outstanding. I mean, as an example, during his time in the 1950s, the renowned critic . . . in those days, New York had 7 or 8 daily newspapers in the 1950s. They all had drama critics. The renowned name was Brooks Atkinson, was the critic for the New York Times. There is a theater on Broadway named for him today. What did Brooks Atkinson used to do? Brooks Atkinson used to come down to Houston. And why did he come here? He would come to see what was going on arts-wise in Houston. So the arts world in Houston was prospering. You can go way back. But it certainly was in the 1950s. I was looking at some old photos recently. Here is a photo of my dad. I think it was over at the Shamrock Hotel actually. It was my dad, Nina Vance who founded the Alley Theater, and Brooks Atkinson. And then, I have another picture of my dad and Brooks Atkinson out in our backyard. He came over to our house. He and my dad were good friends. But here was the premier New York Times critic down here writing about in the 1950s, the arts in Houston. I know that meant a lot to Dad because it said, “Hey, you don’t have to go to New York to find a great theater. You can come to Houston.” As I referenced earlier and I forgot to mention this: my mother was heavily involved with the Houston Little Theater which was a forerunner to the Alley. It was over on Chelsea Street right off Montrose. It was the neatest . . . it was a little theater. It was like a little off Broadway theater. About 200 seats. But it was so neat and I was a kid running up and down the aisles there. I went to many of the plays there. It was a tremendous place. I will tell you one of the actors that came out of there was a Houston guy. I think he was from the Heights, lived in the Heights – Ray Walston. Later went on to a terrific career on Broadway. “Damn Yankees” . . . shows on Broadway and later, an extensive Hollywood career in the movies, television, TV series, My Little Martian was a huge sit in the 1960s. Later, in a lot of big movies – the Sting, Silverstreak, numerous movies. Ray Walston came out of the little theater. But there are numerous other people as we all know who can claim Houston as their home or their point of origination.
DG: Mr. Roussel, I would like to close.
PR: I have enjoyed this, and I applaud this project. You are preserving the story of Houston.
DG: We have talked a lot about how Houston has lost some of its charm, its small town feel in the positive sense. What is our strength in the future? What have we sort of gained as we have lost those marquees on Main Street, as we have lost the ability to walk across town and know all your neighbors? Is there anything you could see as Houston’s strength that will serve us well as we go into the next 20-30 years?
PR: Well, who knows? Maybe some visionary . . . maybe those marquees will come back on Main Street at some point. Maybe some visionary will say, “Hey, we need a theater on Main Street in Houston.” As we know, that is a theater district now but maybe there will be another one some day. Who knows? I guess my answer to that question is first, the people. To me, it is the people that make Houston, to a large degree, what it is. I mean, cities are cities. You can go to different cities now and they are all large and they have a lot of the same kind of things but you have people here who have always had . . . look, we all know there has always been a pioneering spirit. The great oil wildcatters – we had many of them here. That was in the era . . . I go back and I can think . . . now that I have gotten older, I have met some of my brothers’ friends who grew up with him and you can tell by talking to these people who grew up in the 1920s and the 1930s here, it was like a frontier and people helped each other and they still do here. That is why it makes me feel at home here now. In these later years here, I know there are people here I can count on and that says a lot about people. We all would like to think we have friends we can count on and I know I do in Houston. There is just something in the air in Houston. It is like somebody one time was trying to describe Joe DiMaggio and they said, “I can’t. There is a mystique about him and you cannot explain a mystique.” And I am not sure you can explain Houston and put your finger on one thing. I guess the closest I could come would be the great people, and we are now into several – gosh, how many generations are we into here now? And I think we will always have that here. I cannot speak for others but it is where I want to be.
DG: Mr. Roussel, thank you for your time.
PR: Thank you.